Okabe and the other members of the Future Gadget Lab struggle to undo the bonds of fate when Mayuri is killed by SERN’s agents—not just once, but over and over again, across different timestreams. Soon Okabe realizes the only way forward may be backward: to undo every single change they’ve ever made to the universe via the Phone-Wave and the D-Mail system.
The first part of Steins;Gate was far more than just a knotty, cerebral sci-fi thriller from the beginning, and the second half of the show supplies further proof. It’s an exhausting emotional ride, one that turns Okabe from self-styled mad scientist to a man with a heart, and back again, and which never lets the audience off the hook either.
- Unpredictable and highly original premise.
- Rollicking, hilarious character interactions.
- Humor later gives way to an unexpectedly complex and thoughtful plotline.
- Second of two parts, so you've got to watch both.
- Director: Hiroshi Hamasaki, Takuya Sato, and Tomoki Kobayashi
- Animation Studio: WHITE FOX
- Released By: Media Factory
- Released Domestically By: FUNimation Entertainment
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-14 (language, thematic material, violence)
- List Price: $69.98 (DVD/Blu-ray combo)
- Science Fiction
Back to the future, once again
Whenever a TV anime series is split across two volumes, it’s customary to think of the first half as setup and the second half as payoff. This is doubly true for Steins;Gate, since the payoff in the second half isn’t just the tidying-up of all the plotlines kicked off in the first half. It also includes resolving all the emotional conflicts set up by the show, of which there are easily half a dozen. It also involves taking the self-styled mad scientist Rintaro Okabe—sorry, “Hououin Kyouma”, as he loves to call himself—and dashing his spirit against the rocks again and again until it breaks and a better, stronger spirit emerges.
The first part ended on a cliffhanger, where agents of the nefarious SERN broke into Okabe’s “Future Gadget Lab”, where he and his friends had developed a method for sending information backwards through time. Shock after shock: not only is the SERN cell led by Moeka, an introverted young woman who ended up being a lab member thanks to supplying some badly-needed parts, but they cold-bloodedly shoot Mayuri, Okabe’s good-natured childhood friend (and friend to everyone, really). In comes Suzuha, the bike-riding girl who works for the TV repair shop downstairs, who stages a distraction long enough for Okabe to fire up the “Phone Wave” (their time machine) and rewind events forty-eight hours.
At first the plan seems like it should work. Go back in time, warn everyone involved of what’s about to happen, and come up with a counter-plan. Except no matter what he tries, it doesn’t work. Even when he takes Mayuri out of the lab entirely, she still ends up dead—whether she’s run over by a car driven by SERN agents, or shoved in front of a train, or just plain shot. Even holding Moeka at gunpoint can’t stop things from happening; she is, after all, only just a cog in the larger machine that kills Mayuri.
Time's not just been twisted; it's downright bent
If this sounds a bit like the classic comedy Groundhog Day, you’re not far from wrong. The homage seems pretty deliberate, although the tone is entirely different: instead of wistful comedy, it’s now horror verging on tragedy. But after endless time-leaps, Okabe realizes he has to try a different tack—one where he enlists the help of others around him instead of just goading them into submission. First among them: Makise Kurisu, the genius with whom he locks horns so often, and with whom he finds a subtle but entirely effective way to convince, no matter how many time leaps he makes, what’s really been going on around them. The gag is that if anyone in the group is primed to not only believe in but understand Okabe’s brand of crazy, it’s her—and not just because she’s smart, but because she actually cares about him, even if only in ways she’s loathe to articulate.
The other person they get an unexpected source of help from is Suzuha, and for mind-blowing reasons, so go no further into this part of the review unless you want some sizeable spoilers. Suzuha, as it turns out, is herself a time-traveler—the one going by the name John Titor, and daughter of one of the lab members (the truth of which is the source of one of the biggest laughs in the whole show, so there’s no way I’m revealing it here). Her involvement both helps and complicates things further, as Okabe realizes the only solution is to leap progressively back through time and remove everything that would have attracted SERN to them: every D-mail, every hacking attempt into SERN’s computers, everything.
There’s only one final problem. If they wind everything back that far, they have to also wind it back to the point where Makise was killed … the alteration of which was the thing that started this whole adventure in the first place. Okabe refuses to believe he has to let one friend die to save another—or, for that matter, let one die to save billions (there’s a lot more riding on all this than they initially realize)—and sets out to find a way to undo it all and yet make everything right.
Heart, soul, humor, and gizmos
What makes Steins;Gate such a winner is something that only emerges over time: how much plot territory it covers, and how many emotional changes it rings on its material, without ever stepping false or getting tangled in its own steps. The snappy, farce-of-manners banter between lab members (Okabe and Makise, mainly) sets us up for a frothy comedy a la When Harry Met Sally, but the plotting is straight out of the more convoluted science fiction experiments of recent years such as Timecrimes, Looper, or Primer. And then later there comes a tragic flavor to the goings-on, where people race desperately to save their friends from certain doom and are aghast to discover even the tiniest actions have massive repercussions.
But the biggest and most significant emotional development in the show is Okabe’s. The whole show is ultimately about him discovering the importance of the little things in his life—his friendships, the people he cares about—and learning not only to fight for them but to articulate them. During the stretch where he’s undoing each D-mail, he can only do this by persuading other people to change their minds about key things. That requires him to do something genuinely hard for him: put aside his genius act and treat other people like human beings instead of game achievements to be unlocked.
This hits most home when dealing with Ruka Urushibara, the androgynous young Future Gadget Lab member who used a D-Mail to alter the circumstances of his conception and be born a woman. Ruka has (in her female-timeline form) always had a crush on Okabe, and the way they deal with this before undoing everything says at least as much about Okabe’s nascent kindness and goodness as it does about Ruka’s inchoate longings. Okabe does love his friends—and Makise especially—but has to learn how to make his intelligence and his emotions work in concert to save them. Neither one alone will work.